BBC to Include Free Streaming Music for Licence Fee Payers?

Oct 5, 2012   //   by Keith McDonald   //   Technology  //  1 Comment

BBC iPlayer

The BBC is said to be working on a musical equivalent of the iPlayer that will give licence fee payers in the UK free access to thousands of songs from early next year – a move which could offer a hefty saving to those who currently pay to stream music through alternative providers.

Through the new player, provisionally named ‘Playlister’, users would be able to stream the BBC’s considerable archive of music recordings. Such accessibility has been discussed before, but rights issues have always proved a stumbling block. The Beeb is said to be in discussions with commercial operators such as Spotify to develop the service.

The broadcaster has distanced itself from the claims, but there can be little doubting the attraction of such a pursuit. After a stuttering start in 2007, the iPlayer has proved a highly successful venture. It now receives in the region of 200 million views per month.

And a potential expansion into music is an interesting proposition, not least for the existing cost structure, given the Beeb’s limited exposure to advertising. According to the broadcaster, only £0.66 per month per household (£199 million in total / 6% of the total budget) goes towards its online services. It looks unlikely that this will remain such a meagre proportion for much longer.

Nevertheless, there’s no immediate sign of stress upon UK licence payers. It’s these online services after all that have allowed the company to expand its overseas revenue streams. The international launch of the iPlayer across 16 countries has seen the global app downloaded one million times, and overseas users can now subscribe to a select ‘Best of’ package for £49 per year.

And what of the competitors? The Inquirer wonders if the BBC has left it too late to enter the music streaming domain.

Spotify, which had four million subscribed members by August this year, is the most popular services [sic] out there. The BBC might have to offer something unique to sway music lovers into using its service over other rivals.

‘Playlister’ would not be without considerable start-up competitors either, after Apple reputedly signalled their interest in developing a streaming service.

But these factors would hardly be a deterrent. Money, user-experience, and accessibility all weigh heavily in the BBC’s favour.

Four million Spotify subscribers is still a miniscule sum compared to the 200 million monthly views that the iPlayer receives. And not only is music one of the most dynamic of today’s markets, it’s also one of the most elastic in terms of user experience. If a better and/or cheaper service comes along, it will be used en masse – not least by those fed up at having to navigate privacy options to avoid revealing their embarrassing tastes to Facebook, or those determined to eke more value from their £145.50 licence fee.

The Spotify user-experience has become more overtly commercial. Users of the free service are now limited to 2 ½ hours of streaming content each week up to a maximum of 10 hours, and a maximum of five plays of any one individual track. Add to this a barrage of adverts, and many have since found themselves turning to illegal downloads, YouTube rips, or upgrading to a paid account (Unlimited / Premium).

The Premium account, at a penny shy of £10 per month, comprises 86% of the TV licence fee alone. And since subscribers are not bound by a contract, it’s a handy saving for those who are able to find what they want for free, without adverts, on the BBC’s digital archive.

Value for Money?

Value for money is always highly subjective. Those Only Connect and Just a Minute fans amongst us appreciate the scope of what is provided. The scale of the Olympics coverage was mind-blowing,  and it’s all still there to watch again. On the face of it, the ability to watch or listen to material for free following after its live broadcast is remarkably generous.

On the other hand, it’s difficult not to baulk at the market rate for newsreaders, presenters and celebs, which is being dragged into the open as the rows about tax avoidance persist. We might be reminded of what Alan Partridge once called ‘the gravy train’, as he fled the Television Centre restaurant with a block of cheese.

Be that as it may, should the BBC find a way to add its music archive to an on-demand service and absorb the cost – a measure which might be worth £120 per year for paid subscribers of other services – it will become a major coup for the broadcaster in terms of how it demonstrates its professed value for money.

Perhaps our love affair with the broadcaster will begin anew. Now there’s a sobering thought.

BBC Television Centre, Wood Lane

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